Sleep is a regenerative and necessary body process that helps us regain strength. The subject of sleep has been studied for quite some time know, analyzing the different aspects like how much time you need to sleep to be well-rested, what are the benefits of a power nap, or why sleep regression occurs in children. If you’re a new parent, sleep regression can catch you off-guard, so we’re going to go over some of the things that might help you get a better grasp of why sleep regression occurs.
What Is Sleep Regression?
The term is used to describe a period of time when a baby who’s been sleeping peacefully throughout the entire night starts waking up for no apparent reason. It is often a cause for concern and new parents can feel overwhelmed when the baby wakes up in the middle of the night. Sleep regression is often a period of exhaustion for new parents, but what they may not know is that this is a perfectly normal development process.
Sleep regression is basically a change in your baby’s sleeping patterns. It can occur anytime within the baby’s first year, and can last from a few days to months. However, the term “regression” itself is quite incorrect, as the definition of the word implies going back to a previous state or place. Regression means to return, but your baby isn’t actually “returning” to anything: they are just growing and transitioning.
Some experts believe that this phase was associated with regression to give it a more dramatic impact, making it more memorable as a period of stress and exhaustion amongst parents, but the use of the term isn’t all that correct. A better way to define this period would be “sleep transition”, which is more accurate considering how fast babies grow and develop new habits as they try to discover the world around them.
A newborn baby has a sleep cycle that consists of quiet and active sleep. The latter is what you baby does more than half the time they’re sleeping, but also the period when they’re more likely to wake up. The quiet stage is a much deeper state of sleep, and babies are less likely to be woken up with ease.
Evidence suggests that when a baby is around four months of age, a shift in their sleeping pattern occurs, and they start to develop sleep habits that are more similar to those of adults. As the baby starts to grow, their development causes them to become fussier and clingier, which is what these sleep disturbances mean. When going through a sleep regression, parents find it more difficult to put their babies back to sleep once they’ve woken up.
So, no matter how difficult or frustrating it may seem at the time, you have to think about sleep regression as a normal stage in your baby’s development, and have the patience to treat it as just another step to overcome. This too shall pass.
Understanding Sleep Stages
Naturally, in order to study a baby’s sleep in-depth, it’s important to understand a few concepts that are related to general sleep. Humans have sleeping cycles that are comprised of different stages. The four stages of sleep are:
- Stage 1: The first stage of sleep is one that we’re all familiar with. You’re not quite sleeping, but you don’t feel fully awake either. You feel rather dizzy and ready to snooze.
- Stage 2: As you fall asleep, you enter this second stage. If someone were to wake you up right now, you’d fully realize that you were sleeping.
- Stage 3: This is the stage of deep sleep or slow-wave sleep as experts call it. This is the stage where your immune system starts to work to heal, where your energy begins to be restored, when your muscle tissues regenerate, and when babies start to grow and develop.
- Stage 4: You’ve probably heard about the fourth stage often being called REM sleep. Short for “rapid eye movement”, in this REM stage, your brain waves are similar to when you’re waking up. While you’re actually still sleeping, your body doesn’t move, and you may have vivid dreams. This is when most of your dreams occur, and your brain starts to browse through the memories of the day and consolidates information.
Age & Sleep Cycle Changes
If there’s one thing that’s clear for everyone is that a person’s sleep cycle changes repeatedly throughout their life, and here’s how:
- Newborns between zero and four months only have an active and quiet sleep. The active phase of their sleep is basically the equivalent of REM sleep. Since babies spend a lot of time in their active sleep stage, they are likely to wake up only when they’re hungry.
- Infants between the age of four months and one year are starting to develop a more standard sleep stage distinction. This is when they start showing signs of sleep regression when what they’re actually doing is consolidating their sleeping patterns.
- Toddlers between the ages of one and three years have well-developed sleeping patterns. These children spend about 25 percent of their sleep time in the deep sleep phase and sleep on average about nine or ten hours per day.
- Pre-schoolers between the ages of three and six are likely to have a sleeping cycle very similar to that of toddlers.
Sleep Regression Stages
Even if sleep regression is a phase that passes quite fast, it can still be a nightmare to parents who have never had someone waking them up constantly during the night. It’s true that every child will experience sleep regression differently, but there are technically about five different ages when it’s most likely to occur.
— 4-Month Sleep Regression
When a newborn reaches about four months of age, plenty of major changes start occurring. When they are about six weeks old, they start to develop their own circadian rhythms, so by the time they reach the age of four months, their sleep-wake similar begins to look very much like that of an adult. They shuffle between REM and non-REM sleep. Translation: much like adults, they begin to wake up during the night, but aren’t that keen on falling back to sleep all by themselves.
The 4-month sleep regression is a huge step for your baby, and one that they need your help handling. It’s not uncommon for children in this stage to feel hungry more often, so if they wake up in the middle of the night asking to be fed, don’t hesitate to do so. Some babies even start rolling at this age, and while not all are successful, some of them manage to roll on their stomachs and cry for help to be put back in their initial position.
— 6-Month Sleep Regression
This is way more uncommon compared to the 4-month sleep regression. This is the age at which babies are more likely to pull up in their cribs or crawl around the house, which can mess with their sleeping routine quite a lot. Since they stay awake for longer and tend to move around when they’re awake, parents might find it more difficult to put their children to sleep when they’re so curious about exploring.
It is a common time for parents to start night training their children, whilst taking advantage of this sleep regression stage. We’re not going to get into sleep training because it’s a very complex subject and would deserve an article of its own, we can tell you that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of solution, and it might not even work in some cases.
— 8-Month Sleep Regression
Much like the 4-month sleep regression, this one is common yet again. That’s because this is another time for reaching new baby milestones, such as crawling all around the house. At this age, most babies will pull up and try to walk. Some babies tend to pull up in their cribs and aren’t sure how to sit down, at which point they may start crying.
Eight months is usually when children start feeling separation anxiety. This happens because the baby becomes more aware of your existence as a parent, and may start to feel scared when you’re not in sight, so don’t be surprised if they suddenly start protesting when you leave the room.
During this time, it would be best if you encouraged the child to play around the crib during the day, just to make sure they associate it with a positive experience and aren’t anxious about sleeping there.
— 12-Month Sleep Regression
This stage isn’t very common, but it does occur in quite a lot of children. During this sleep regression, children are more likely to switch from two naps per day to just one. It will be up to you to make sure that nap is fruitful, but if your child wakes up cranky and looks tired, you might want to stick with two naps per day for longer.
One year is also the time when plenty of children start walking. That makes it more difficult for parents to convince them to lie in bed, especially when the youngsters feel there’s plenty of exploring left to do. The way around this is to make sure your child walks and crawls plenty during the day, so they’ll have satisfied more of the curiosity by bedtime.
— 18-Month Sleep Regression
This is probably the most uncommon sleep regression stage, because your child is basically a toddler of one year and a half. That means that they have a personality, and strong opinions about things, especially about bedtime. It’s not uncommon, however, for children to find it very hard to settle down and fall asleep, especially when they have so much energy.
The best thing you can do at this point is to work on a sleep routine. It’s very important to actually try and stick to it, especially when you have to face the protesting toddler that will most likely tell you they don’t want to go to sleep.
Tips for Handling Sleep Regression Periods
As mentioned in the first section of this article, sleep regression in children can be extremely exhausting for parents. When you’ve never experienced sleep regression and are a first-time parent, there are some general pieces of advice that could help you along the journey:
- The most important thing to remember not just when it comes to sleep regression, but for other baby-related aspects is to ask for help. You and your partner should split responsibilities when it comes to waking up in the middle of the night. You can always turn to other family members and friends for help: they could keep an eye on the baby during the day so that you can get some shut-eye.
- If need be, don’t be afraid to feed your baby an extra meal or two. Remember that your baby is growing, and might demand the extra food every now and then.
- However tempting it may be, don’t encourage old or new bad habits. For example, don’t make your baby get used to being rocked to sleep every night, but don’t fall into the other extreme either: it’s important to give your baby the extra love they require during this stage.
- If you feel that your baby isn’t getting enough sleep, don’t be afraid to put them to bed earlier. While sleep regression is normal, sleep deprivation isn’t, so make sure that you do your best to avoid exhaustion.
- Try not to mess up your daily routine too much. It will be a tough time and because you feel tired, you might be tempted to change your daily tasks, but try to stay on track as much as possible. If you change your daily routine too much, it will be more difficult for you to get back on track once the baby has a normal sleep schedule.
- Try to keep the baby’s room as dark as possible when it’s time for sleep. Don’t worry, your baby won’t be afraid of the dark. They will be, however, responsive to light, so if you want to create a proper sleeping environment, maybe blackout curtains aren’t such a bad idea.
- Don’t wait for the baby to be fully asleep before putting them in their crib.
When you are a new parent, there will be lots of firsts to experience during this journey. While most of these experiences will fill your heart with strong emotions, not all of it will be a piece of cake. You may find yourself angry, frustrated, or just exhausted. There are times when it can get overwhelming, particularly when your child experiences sleep regression.
The important thing to remember is that it is just a phase, and a much shorter one compared to other growth phases you’ll have to face. Think about the fact that sleep regression is an important stage in your baby’s growth, and it helps them transition to a more adult-like sleeping pattern.